Outside a house in the city’s Alamos neighborhood, a handwritten sign advertises CENTRO DE Acopio-Albergue—Collection Center-Shelter—next to a banner of the EZLN (the National Zapatista Liberation Army). Inside, banners in memory of the disappeared Ayotzinapa 43 hang in the building’s courtyard. Donations—water, toilet paper, nonperishables—fill the downstairs rooms. This building houses Café Zapata Vive, a leftist cultural center that, in the days after the earthquake, became a hub both for alternative media entities and for brigades organizing to aid earthquake victims across the city. On September 19, various collectives and autonomous media entities—including alternative radio stations from across the country—gathered here to strategize. The next day, they began an illegal radio transmission to share information about the goings-on across the city.
The collectives transmitting on the radio out of Café Zapata have made it their goal to speak through the misinformation, malpractice, and cover-ups that have proliferated in the chaos after the earthquake. They call themselves the Brigadas Autónomas. “Let’s say it clearly,” they wrote in a press release on September 26, “solutions will not come from the State and from capital; on the contrary, they are responsible for a natural phenomenon turning into a tragedy.” In a way, there can be something equitable, at least initially, about a natural disaster: rubble falls on rich and poor alike. This time, as in 1985, buildings in the wealthy Roma and Condesa neighborhoods suffered some of the greatest damage in the city. But reconstruction comes at a price, and after the earth stops shaking, the vulnerable find themselves even more so.
In the Obrera neighborhood, a garment factory on Calle Chimalpopoca collapsed and trapped an unknown quantity of workers, largely undocumented immigrant women. Authorities demolished the factory before brigades could fully ascertain whether bodies remained inside. “Since the beginning, the rescue workers have wanted to make invisible what was in that place,” a member of the autonomous media says. (All the members are anonymous). “These are immigrant women workers that don’t have papers and don’t have labor rights in Mexico,” another explains, “but they also have a right to that if anyone survives, or even if there weren’t survivors, the bodies have to be taken out to have certainty of what happened with those people.” A feminist rescue brigade had surged to find the victims, whose names and nationalities remain unknown. The brigade affirms that “the deaths in Chimalpopoca and the rest of the collapsed buildings are not just the random effect of a ‘natural disaster,’ there are guilty parties and they have names and registrations.” The workers of Chimalpopoca aren’t just earthquake victims: without names or identities or bodies, they join the thousands of victims of forced disappearance in Mexico. The ruins are gone, and so are the traces of exploitation and negligence in the factory.
Elsewhere, earthquake damages have become an excuse for displacement. Residents of Xochimilco find their houses in critical conditions, at risk of collapsing and causing greater damage, but to demolish them, they need the signatures of four officials—“of functionaries who aren’t functioning right now, and who weren’t functioning before,” says a member of the autonomous brigades. The indigenous Otomí community in the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods have left the complex where they previously lived, which was deemed uninhabitable after the quake; to the indignation of neighbors, they’ve encamped under tents and tarps several blocks away down Calle Guanajuato.
As the rubble has settled, new traces of corruption have appeared across the city. One collapsed building after another has been discovered to be structurally unsound. Officials who manage contracts are notorious for taking a mordida—a bite, a bribe—off of the payment, and in real estate development, this can mean cutting corners, replacing high-quality materials with sub-par ones or approving unsound structures. In the Benito Juarez delegation, which has seen a dramatic real estate boom in recent years, one apartment building that collapsed in the quake had opened just nine months earlier. Days later, the news site Animal Politico reported that it had been approved by a supervising official with an expired license. Architects affirmed that the building had been structurally unsound all along.
The water shortages that have historically plagued the city continue in peripheral areas; residents of the Iztapalapa delegation continue without water. The government continues to withhold much official data on the deaths in the city.
One week after the earthquake, as rescue workers continued digging in rubble for victims, Mexicans gathered on Paseo de la Reforma to march in memory of the three-year anniversary of the Ayotzinapa massacre. The case of the forty-three students disappeared in September 2014 lingers unresolved, and no one has been charged. Ayotzinapa has come to represent, among many things, the corruption, impunity and violence that characterizes the Mexican government in this decade. The students join the disappeared of Chimalpopoca, those crushed in buildings constructed with misdirected money, those still unnamed.
In the upstairs room at Café Zapata, the Autonomous Brigades continue transmitting for a few days more. The radio station is provisional, but for now, they bear witness to the devastation throughout the city and the country. Volunteers rotate in and out of the ad-hoc studio, eating corn flakes, listening to others talk on the radio, resting on the blankets piled in one corner. Some have returned from towns in the Istmo of Oaxaca, where the September 7 earthquake devastated small towns in the Juchitan district, and where a September 23 aftershock shook to the ground buildings made precarious a few weeks earlier. A series of helicopters and airplanes had made a show of delivering bags of donations, they said, which held nothing but toilet paper.
They transmit on the radio a speech by Marichuy, the independent indigenous candidate put forth by the Consejo Nacional Indígena for next year’s presidential election. She will be running along over a dozen candidates, including Mexico City’s chief of governance Miguel Ángel Mancera. Election season tends to temporarily bring political parties into marginalized communities, and this time, they’ve used earthquake recovery to promote their parties. The corruption revealed by the earthquake—irregularities in construction, for instance, permitted by Mancera’s government—may erode citizens’ trust in government. The same struggles they faced before, though, will continue, only now in the context of a post-catastrophe politic.
The volunteers reflect on the months of reconstruction efforts to come, both in the city and elsewhere. Now as ever, citizens see their rights to water and adequate housing threatened. Victims who lost their homes are already being evicted from shelters. The Autonomous Brigades anticipate further attempts by the city to privatize water and allow developers to displace working-class populations throughout the city. Their challenge is to reconstruct areas that already lived in a state of precarity. It’s time, they say, to “reformulate the model of life.”
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